Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 59 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Yisrael followed two-and-a-half-year-old Nati with his eyes as the child ran. Nati laughed in the direction of his grandfather and then went back to chasing a butterfly.
“The sun here on the roof is divine,” Elisheva said, closing her eyes for a moment. “But on my porch, it’s even better.”
Her father looked at her tenderly and smiled.
“It was nice the other day, wasn’t it?”
“Very nice,” he agreed. “Did you get pictures?”
“The shul promised to send us some as soon as they get them. I’m most interested in seeing a photo of the dedication, of course.” Her father’s eyes were fixed on a far-off point in the sky, and she pictured the words floating on the clouds there, in the same font and size that they appeared on the wooden sefer Torah case, filling the entire frame: In eternal commemoration of the family members of Reb Yisrael Bentzion, who were killed during the Holocaust, and whose names, dates of death, and place of burial are not known to anyone.
“We all enjoyed, and now the children will play “hachnassas sefer Torah” for the next two months. Right, Yitzy?”
“Right,” her son answered eagerly. “Ima, will you let us use the orange blanket for the chuppah tomorrow?” The orange blanket was a velvety, shiny blanket that the children especially liked. It had been an integral part of their game the day before, until Elisheva noticed how they stuck the broom and mop sticks into it to use as poles for the “chuppah,” and she’d told them they couldn’t use it anymore.
“We’ll see,” she said.
“We love chuppahs, Saba,” Yitzy explained. Elisheva got up to catch Nati, who had disappeared from her view as he rounded a corner. “When Tzippy got married, we played ‘chasunah‘ and ‘chuppah’ a lot afterward.”
“And you always called that you were the chassan,” Shloimy said accusingly. “With Binyamin’s suit jacket.”
“Only on the day he was sick,” Yitzy shot back defensively. “And he was sleeping.”
Elisheva returned to her chair, gripping Nati’s hand tightly. “What happened when Binyamin was sick?” she asked.
“I wore his jacket, and I was the chassan at the wedding,” Yitzy explained. “But it wasn’t such a good game, because you told us to go out of the dining room because he was sleeping there, so we could only play in the hallway and kitchen.”
“And I was the photographer!” Four-year-old Bentzy jumped up. “Right, I was the photographer?”
“That’s right,” Yitzy said generously. “And you took pictures of me standing on the chair. But then Chani saw me wearing Binyamin’s jacket, and she yelled at me to take it off because I was ruining it.”
“Because she was sweeping the floor,” Bentzy explained sagely.
“So I hung it on the towel hook, near the fridge, because I didn’t want to go into the dining room to wake up Binyamin. Wow, do you remember the old kitchen? It was soooo pitzy!”
Elisheva looked at her younger children, and saw her father’s eyes resting on them as well. Their animated chatter gave him so much nachas; every day that he stayed here in the nursing home was such a shame. He had to move in with them as quickly as possible.
She had his agreement, in theory, baruch Hashem, but they needed to renovate that last room and turn it into a separate unit. His grandchildren’s chatter was sweet—but in moderation, not when it was part of the routine tumult in the house.
“Pitzy?” their grandfather asked, amused. “What is pitzy?”
“You know, really tiny,” Shloimy said. “Our old kitchen was so tiny that it only had two hooks for the towels, and the towels were always falling down. Binyamin’s jacket also fell down, Yitzy, remember?”
“So what?” Yitzy shrugged it off. “I picked it up right away and hung it back on the hook.”
“When was that?” Something about this conversation was niggling in Elisheva’s mind. “When did Binyamin’s jacket fall on the floor near the fridge?”
“Before Purim, when Binyamin was sick for almost a week.”
“Not next to the fridge,” Shloimy corrected his brother. “Half of it was stuck under the fridge.”
“Not true!” His brother—older by a year and a half—was indignant now.
“Yes, it is! I saw you cleaning the sleeve because it got really dirty. You used a baby wipe, and then you hung the jacket up again, so we could only see the other sleeve, the clean one!”
Well, the question of how the silver yad had gotten under the fridge was now solved. Elisheva now knew exactly how it had happened.
They went down in the elevator to her father’s room.
“A contractor is supposed to come by this evening,” Elisheva told him, as the elevator doors slid open. “He’ll give us an estimate for the renovation. It shouldn’t come out to be too much, but even so, the difference in price between different contractors can be quite significant.”
“Which contractor are you looking into?”
“Someone named Gutfreund. We heard good things about him. He renovated Eliyahu’s chavrusa’s house, and they were very satisfied. There’s another contractor we heard about…” Ugh, those annoying barks. On the other hand, it was a good thing that Emmanuel’s dogs gave her warning about their presence.
“Ah, Reb Yisrael!” the tall man exclaimed as he approached them. “Your grandchildren are so cute.” He smiled at the children, who gaped at the two little heads peeping from the man’s pocket. “Don’t try to pet them! They bite anyone who they don’t know—and hard! So what do I hear, Reb Yisrael? Are you really moving?”
Elisheva’s father nodded.
“And why do you need a contractor?”
“We’re making my father a separate unit, so he should be comfortable,” Elisheva explained. “The entrance will be from our house, but it will be equipped with everything he needs, and it will be separate and quiet…”
“Oh, contractors. I know a few. Do you want some phone numbers?”
Elisheva, who was confused enough by the information her friends from work had bombarded her with, and by all the recommendations that Eliyahu’s chavrusos had given him, preferred not to start the whole thing again. “We have a few leads,” she said politely. “If we need some more names, I’ll let you know. Thanks. Tzippy?! What are you doing here?”
“We came to see Saba.” Tzippy’s smiling face emerged from her grandfather’s room, where she had been waiting for him. “I came with Miri.”
“So nice to see you girls!” Elisheva said warmly. Now she felt that it was time for her to leave with the little ones. Besides for the fact that they were tired, there were too many Potolsky faces in the hallway at the moment, and she didn’t like that. Neither did her father, she knew. He had always been afraid of ayin hara.
“I popped in to visit Tzippy,” her older daughter explained. “And she lives so close to Saba that I felt it would be a shame to be in the area and not go and visit him.”
“So we came together!”
“And here is Shmully!” The children darted into the room, cavorting around their nephew.
Elisheva and her father remained behind, as she kept pace with his slow steps. The sounds of laughter wafted out of the small room, whose door had closed. Elisheva looked at her father, wanting to tell him not to worry; the noise would ease in a moment because she would be leaving with the boys. But he said something to her instead.
“I hope that Miri will also get a big apartment.” He put his hand on the mezuzah.
“You bought more raffle tickets, Abba?” She chuckled.
“So how are you hoping for this?”
“It’s necessary to buy her one. So she shouldn’t be jealous.”
Elisheva stopped. “I didn’t buy a big apartment for anyone, Abba,” she said quietly, hoping that the cheerful chatter from inside the room would muffle her words. “Not for myself, and not for Tzippy. If I bought an apartment, then it was for Miri herself. True, hers is not large, and it’s not in Bnei Brak, but I’m doing what I can afford.”
He looked at her with his deep-set eyes, but she wasn’t finished.
“Since they were born, I’ve been trying to instill in them—in all of my kids—that each one has what is coming to him or her, and that no one can take that away from them, and they cannot take it away from anyone else.” She didn’t realize how much pain enveloped her words. “If Miri is envious of her sister, then maybe I’ve failed in her chinuch… But to pay a penalty equal to the cost of an apartment is something I cannot do…”
“You didn’t fail,” her father said, his hand still on the mezuzah.
“So what are you saying?”
“Something very unusual happened here.”
“What, with my apartment and Tzippy’s?”
“It really is very strange. I’ve told you that myself, before. But what am I supposed to do? Ask U’shemartem to give Miri a beautiful apartment as well? Or ask the millionaire to check if perhaps he has another couple in the family who needs to be commemorated, whose names were Yaakov and Miriam?”
“Don’t be angry,” her father said.
“I’m not an—” But at that second Elisheva was stunned by the intensity of the fury that bubbled up inside her. “Not at you, Abba,” she hurried to say, although she could hardly get the sentence out. “At Miri. Maybe it’s not nice to be angry at her, because she really did fall between the cracks here, but—”
The door was suddenly flung open. “Saba! Ima! Why aren’t you coming? Shmully is standing, Ima! You have to see this! Miri said that he turned exactly ten months yesterday!”
Elisheva suddenly realized that her eyes were glistening. The timing was actually good, because Miri was sure that they were tears of emotion in her mother’s eyes, at the sight of her first grandson learning to stand. Seeing little Shmully standing on the floor in his socks, gripping the arm of the chair and sending happy smiles in every direction, really was the sweetest sight. He reminded Elisheva so much of Miri at that moment, and Elisheva felt herself flashing back to her early days of motherhood. How much she had wanted to do for little Miri, to give her—and the ones who came after her—whatever possible…and how quickly she’d discovered how small, limited, and painful her “whatever possible” really was.
She would never be able to give her children everything.
No. She wasn’t angry at her father, nor was she angry at Miri.
It was an old frustration of hers. A frustration over what she lacked, and the things she could not give, and the fear that her children were growing up disadvantaged. The frustration that she never allowed herself to express, even to her own self. She’d always just bite her lips quietly, in the dark, to make sure that they were constantly turned up into a smile.
It wasn’t that these smiles were totally false. She was happy. She also tried to raise her children in a happy atmosphere.
But during the moments when she felt sad, confused, and uncertain, even in front of the mirror, she would stifle that sadness and force herself to continue smiling.
Why was it so hard for her to admit, even to herself, that she was finding things hard?
Elisheva walked through the empty house. All the children were in school, and she just wandered from room to room, looking at the morning mess but not seeing it. Blumi had called, but Elisheva hadn’t even answered the phone.
No, it hadn’t been bad all these years. Of course not.
It had been a bit hard; that was true. It wasn’t easy to create something from nothing and to raise the children happily when everyone else had so many things that they did not. But she had been strong, a little too strong. Maybe it was ingrained in her from an early age, the feeling of, “We have to block it out.” It was because of this feeling that she’d never told her parents that her friend had insulted her, or that she had fallen, or that the teacher had scolded her.
The coping method she had found was to persuade herself that there was nothing wrong. Her friend had insulted her, she had fallen, she had been scolded—so what?
And even as she’d grown older, things had continued in this vein: She’d tell herself, We have no fridge for five days, till the next paycheck—nu, nu. Or, Despite my efforts, the mending on the kids’ clothes is evident—so what? Or, I bought clothes at a gemach, and a friend saw me coming out of there with bags—so what? Is it an embarrassment to be poor?
No, it’s not an embarrassment.
But it was difficult, and there was no reason to suppress that.
Elisheva stood in front of the fridge and found herself scratching a word with the magnet pen onto a reminder notice that it was pinning to the fridge. Difficulty. Then she quickly scribbled it up. There were a few curious little ones who would, no doubt, try to figure out what the difficulty was, who it was relating to, and whose handwriting it was written in.
Another scribble, and then another, but the letters from the word that she’d written seemed to jump out at her from between the blue lines, mocking her. She gripped the pen even tighter, and only when the paper tore, and the refrigerator was adorned with a blue scribble, did it enter her mind that she could merely toss the poor scrap into the trash, because they had already made the payment to Bentzy’s preschool.
And they did have the means, baruch Hashem.
Today, she could no longer say they were poor.
And there was no way to figure out whom that was due to.
That, perhaps, was an embarrassment.
She shook her head and arranged the chairs around the small table. She had no energy to answer Blumi’s call and listen to what she had discovered or planned to discover. She preferred to stick to the thought that nothing was orchestrated, and nothing had been given to them out of pity.
Because she was embarrassed.
At least today she could admit it.
Elisheva looked around her, at the big house, through a new lens. Would her little ones grow up happier than her big ones, who had spent their childhood years in a tiny, simple-to-the-point-of-shabby apartment? She hoped they would grow up happy. And she also hoped that, when all was said and done, the older children had also been happy enough growing up, even though some of their mother’s smiles and remarks—as she knew today—were purely an act.
She really tried to be strong. Perhaps even for herself a bit. But mostly for her family, for her children. And for that, she would surely not be judged negatively.